What We Talk About When We Talk About “Connection”

It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been working on Zadie Smith, writing a draft of a chapter about the digital interfaces in NW. I’ve come to that classic post-structuralist conclusion of “I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that” with regard to the function of digital interfaces in the novel. One critic suggests that such interfaces play with connection and disconnection in the text, but there’s an obvious problem with this reading. It relies on the idea that digital interfaces engender a capacity for “connection” or “disconnection”, rather than something more detailed, more complex, something in-between. To put it another way, saying that a person (or a character in a book) is either connected or disconnected  is reductive of the experience of using such interfaces.

“Connect” comes from the Latin to bind together; the use of the term to imply a physical unity or a form of relationship between two entities is present from the late 19th century. The idea that “connection” describes something that is “meaningful” doesn’t occur until mid-way through the twentieth century, having become part of the language of telephone communication. (NB: I am again painfully aware that I not yet read Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book. Sorry Kev, who first recommended it, like, a year ago. And Avital, obviously.) In contemporary use, the term connect is over-determined. It suggests a meaningful relationship with someone else, but the antonym disconnect can describes a way of switching your attention from a computer to another person in order to give them more of your time. Talking in terms of connect/disconnect establishes a binary opposition, one that reinforces the concept of digital dualism (that the virtual world is distinct, radically different from and subservient to the material world). All that happens when using a digital interface is that we are connected – the concept gives no sense of the process of the interface, or the interface effects which happen while engaging with it. This stuff is hidden by the term “connect”. There is no sense, phenomenological or otherwise, of the detailed interactions which happen when using the interface, because the act which requires the least agency is privileged.

This (dead) metaphorical reference contains within it an ideological structure. If it is understood that it is possible to be in a state of disconnection rather than connection, then this disconnection can be linked to a time prior to ubiquitous digital interfaces. This means that connection can be nostalgically contrasted with a pre-Lapsarian state of disconnection (see Sherry Turkle and her desire for us to all go read Thoreau in a wood) which establishes a moral and political frame for the denigration of contemporary technology. The same can be said for the technophilic desire to think of connection as the ultimate transcendence (see William Gibson’s Neuromancer which is referenced in basically every book on digital technology ever) which then pushes a scientific ethic of progress and development – just as disturbing. (Consider that many instances of literary utopia/dystopia are predicated on visions of total of connection.)

These terms were once used to describe a change in a physical state, and then evolved to describe a change in behaviour. It suggested we acted differently in front of a digital interface – that our experiences were somehow flat, or not inflected by bodies. These changes don’t occur in the same way anymore when it comes to digital interfaces. Cities with ubiquitous digital interfaces and a high percentage of citizens with Internet access experience online discourse as a part of mundane, everyday experience. The notion of connection/disconnection which still remains is a dangerous fiction, one which is often reinscribed by the critique of digital interfaces in art and public life. It negates the power of digital interfaces as a mode of social and political expression, because it suggests that a) using digital interfaces is a flat, standard experiences common to all technical platforms; b) that the experience of digital interfaces is somehow outside of the material realm and is not an experience which relies on, say, access, privilege or class; and c) it undermines the validity of discourse through these interfaces by positing the disconnected state as the privileged mode for serious or “meaningful” discourse.

I’m probably assuming too much about the presence of these terms in criticism, media, popular culture etc but a brief internet search will provide results for a host of articles, positive and negative, referring to the totalizing fictions of connection/disconnection. What none of those articles will make reference to is that the way one uses the interface – whether or not you use Google or DuckDuckGo for that internet search, for instance – is vastly more significant to thinking about the important things, politics and class, than whether or not someone is “connected”.  The concept of connection and disconnection as total states for digital interfaces is part of a language which denies difference and minimizes the potential for radical platforms. You are not merely “connected” or “disconnected” – you are doing all manner of things which involve agency, special understanding, community.